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Niagara Q&A: Cambria native Jason Torreano finds passion, purpose in South Africa

Born and raised in the Town of Cambria, Jason Torreano currently lives in Syracuse, but South Africa is never far from his thoughts.

He fell in love with the country and, specifically, its people, as a college student and he’s since visited more than a dozen times. And he has founded a nonprofit educational organization in Grahamstown, South Africa, to give a boost to disadvantaged youths who exhibit the desire to succeed.

Torreano, an articulate and engaging 30-year-old, said he and his colleagues carefully chose the name “Inkululeko” for the organization, because it means “freedom” in the native Xhosa language largely spoken in Grahamstown.

“We feel that this is what we provide – the freedom for the students to choose college or a career,” he said.

But that choice is the result of a great deal of hard work, dedication and “passion,” to borrow a word Torreano frequently uses when discussing the program. And it’s passion on the part of the students, tiny staff and myriad volunteers from around the world that makes the program possible.

Inkululeko provides tutoring and enrichment opportunities beyond the students’ regular education, in an effort to try to level the playing field tilted by South Africa’s history of apartheid. Although apartheid officially ended in 1994 with the election of President Nelson Mandela, Torreano said the “massive disparities” of wealth distribution continue.

And that is why he feels his organization is so vital.

Torreano recently took some time to chat about South Africa, his mission and his goals.

What’s your own educational background?

I graduated from Starpoint High School and the State University of New York at Brockport. I earned my graduate degree from SUNY Empire State College with a focus on nonprofit management and international development.

As part of my education at Brockport, I needed to have local, national and international experiences and I opted for South Africa for my international experience and that’s where it all began. I volunteered with the Amasango School for Street Children and taught English at the Nathaniel Nyaluza High School.

It sounds cliché, but it was life changing.

So this is where the seeds were planted for this project?

Yes. I would come home and work summers at Lockport Cable Television as a program counselor and then go back to South Africa. I knew I wanted to do something like this (Inkululeko), but didn’t have the time or a lot of money.

I worked in television news as a reporter and anchor for a while, but didn’t see myself doing this for the next 20 years.

I now work for a public interest law firm in Syracuse as the development director. It’s been an awesome experience. I do grant-writing and donor relations and this really ties into my work with Inkululeko because all nonprofits need money to keep moving and this allows me to refine my skills.

So how does Inkululeko work?

We accept eighth-graders from the township high schools, who are the ones who are historically socioeconomically disadvantaged, and we stay with them through high school.

It’s free, but we only have 25 on our roster right now. We don’t want to expand until we have the resources to do it.

They have to fill out an application, but they are open-ended questions. We want to see motivation, grit and tenacity. They don’t have to be first in their class, but they have to be working to be first.

They come after school to Inkululeko a minimum of three days a week. We have our own space – one or two classrooms – in one of the township high schools and everything in the rooms is ours – the computers, overhead projectors and books.

The students come to us after school, between 2:30 and 3 o’clock in the afternoon until 5. We give them a small snack, because they haven’t eaten much through the day, then we work on homework the first hour and then an educational activity. It’s something different than what they’d get in school.

What language do the students speak, and do you speak it, too?

Most of them speak Xhosa as their first language and most of them are fluent in English, because it is their second language. I do speak some Xhosa. There are 11 different languages, depending on what part of the country you’re from.

So who runs the program while you’re in Syracuse?

We have three paid staff members, including Matt Kellen, who is from Spokane, Wash. I met Matt because he was volunteering at the same time I was at the Amasango school and he married a South African woman and lives there now.

We also have two other staff members, Zukisani Lamani and Bongisani Soxujwa. I actually tutored Zuki when he was a student and we are so fortunate to have him on our staff. I really believe that if he had been given opportunities to go school (college), he’d be running a major South African company right now – he’s that smart.

Our program is year-round. The students go to school from February to around late November, but we still have activities when they’re out of school, too.

When school started this year, students lined up outside the door to get applications to our program. It was beautiful, but heartbreaking, because we don’t have the space. But our hope is to one day expand.

So this is all about offering students opportunities they otherwise might never have?

Yes. We don’t all start from the same place, and it’s our role to make things more equitable, and in doing so, I believe our students can perform at the same level as those provided opportunities.

We enrolled our first students in 2012, so we haven’t had any graduates yet, but we’ve had some fantastic success stories. We’ve had students place first in their class of a few hundred students and students receive certificates of distinction. We post our successes on Facebook.

Who else has helped you with this project?

Over the past five years, we’ve had hundreds of people volunteer for us. We’ve had people volunteer from age 18 to their 70s – but most are college students.

We collaborate with Syracuse University – it’s part of its study-abroad program now and 15 students come for three weeks each year and help tutor.

And, half of our board of directors is from the U.S. and half is from South Africa.

How can people here help your organization there?

The biggest thing we look for in a volunteer is to be passionate about what we do.

We can always find a way for someone to contribute, whether it’s volunteering in South Africa, donating money, helping with social media, recruitment or planning fundraisers here or serving on our board. We just received a grant from the John Ben Snow Foundation in Syracuse to start another fundraising stream for us, so we’re looking for someone business-minded to assist us. A student from Syracuse University just redesigned our website and another maintains our social media.

We’re not a massive organization with millions of dollars. We rely on the kindness of strangers.

What does the future hold?

We have been getting fantastic college students, but we think there’s something missing, and that’s older people. I think of my mother, who retired from teaching school and was ready to start another chapter of her life. Older volunteers have a wealth of experience and knowledge to share.

This is an experiment – we are collaborating with Global Youth Connect on a Young at Heart Program, exclusively for those ages 45 and older to go to Grahamstown and volunteer. It’s not hopping on a tour bus, it’s true community engagement.

If this works (enough volunteers commit), we’ll be going in February, when it’s summertime in South Africa.

If anyone hears about us and feels passionate about what we’re doing and wants to help – but doesn’t know how – I urge them to email me at: Jason.Torreano@Inkululeko.org, and we will find a way for them to contribute.

You can learn about Inkululeko at www.inkululeko.org, and we are on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Know a Niagara County resident who would make an interesting question-and-answer column? Write to: Niagara Weekend Q&A, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, NY 14240, or email niagaranews@buffnews.com.